If you’re trying to assess whether the EU as a political institution is legitimate, it is important to first define what legitimacy actually is. Fritz Scharpf (1970) defined two major types of legitimacy:
Input legitimacy is the one most people are talking about when they decide whether a political system is legitimate, and can be seen as legitimacy through participation. Input legitimacy focuses on an idea of politics and governance by the people and ensures that decisions are made in a way that involves those being governed (Scharpf, 2003). Input legitimacy is increased if more people are able to take part in the decision-making process. An obvious form of input legitimacy is elections, but can also include referenda, community fora, citizens’ assemblies and other more direct conceptions of democracy.
Output legitimacy is concerned with the legitimacy of the outcomes, or legitimacy through performance. Another way of looking at this type of legitimacy is whether the policy solutions that are taken are effective in addressing the issues facing the people, or government for the people (Scharpf, 2003). Output legitimacy is increased if the needs of more stakeholders or individuals in society are met by a policy decision. This is the type of legitimacy that politicians are drawing on when they ask you to consider their track record in the previous government, with the argument being that if a government decision is beneficial to more people, it is more (outcome) legitimate.
Vivien Schmidt introduced a third type of legitimacy as well:
Input legitimacy focuses on the who of decision-making, output legitimacy on the what, and throughput legitimacy focuses on the how (Schmidt, 2013). It can also be termed as legitimacy through process and focuses on the political processes that shape how decisions are made. This can include broad considerations such as the political system (presidential, parliamentary, etc.) down to specific reporting procedures in government sub-committees. When governments talk about ‘political transparency and openness’ or scrutiny by other chambers such as the Senate or House of Lords, they are talking about throughput legitimacy.
Unfortunately, it is not feasible to have maximal levels of all three types of legitimacy. If you significantly increase input legitimacy, this may harm the outputs the government can produce and make politics more inefficient. Conversely, increasing output legitimacy can result in disenfranchisement of minority groups or simply lack the democratic weight that is expected in politics.
Scharpf, F. (2003). ‘Problem-Solving Effectiveness and Democratic Accountability in the EU’. MPIfG Working Paper 03/1, available at www.mpifg.de
Schmidt, Vivien A. (2013). Democracy and legitimacy in the European Union revisited: Input, output and ‘throughput’. Political Studies, 61, 2-22.